August/September 2016 - Vol. 87

Mother Maria
“A Mother for All”
Mother Maria Skobtsova  
By Jeanne Kun

The way to God lies through love of people” - Mother Skobtsova

Born into a family of aristocratic Russian landowners in 1891, Elizaveta (Liza) Iur’evna Pilenko trod a long and difficult path from her birthplace near the Black Sea to her martyr’s death in one of Hitler’s concentration camps. During her adolescence, Liza rejected her Orthodox religious faith. While at the university in St. Petersburg, she was involved with an avant-garde literary circle and later published two volumes of poetry. She married impetuously at eighteen and soon divorced. During the turmoil following the Bolshevik Revolution, Liza, with her mother, her daughter Gaiana, and her second husband Daniil Skobtsov, fled Russia and eventually settled in Paris in 1922.

With the death of Liza’s youngest daughter Nastia in 1926, she rediscovered faith in God and saw a “new road before me and a new meaning in life... to be a mother for all.” She sought out destitute Russian refugees in hospitals and mental asylums and in the slums to help them, saying, “They have no need of sermons; they need the most basic thing of all, compassion.”

In 1932, when she was forty-one years old, Liza received a marital separation, which was authorized by the Orthodox Church because of her decision to enter the monastic life. She made her profession as an Orthodox nun under the guidance of Metropolitan Evlogii, who gave her her new name, Maria, in memory of St. Mary of Egypt. “Like this Mary, who lived a life of penitence in the desert,” Evlogii told her,  “go and act and speak in the desert of human hearts.” Later he wrote of her: “When she took the veil she brought as a gift to Jesus all her talents. Among them, a true gift of God, was the knowledge how to approach those who had lost the right path without despising their weaknesses and faults.”

After visiting Orthodox convents in Estonia and Latvia, Mother Maria was convinced that a new form of monasticism was required to meet the needs and circumstances of the Russian émigrés in France. Back in Paris, she lived as a  “monastic in the world,” pushing the borders of monasticism past their former limits—and sometimes disturbing the more traditionally-minded as she did. Her monastery was the world around her, where she sought to soothe human suffering in any way that she encountered it, recognizing that “each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world.”

house of
                                hospitality run by Mother Maria
Mother Skobtsova's small house of hospitality in Paris

Soon Mother Skobtsova opened a small house of hospitality for the needy, trusting God to provide the funds for it. In 1934, the work was transferred to a larger house at 77 rue de Lourmel, where she provided meals and a place to sleep for the hungry and homeless. The house, with its drawing room and a chapel adorned with embroidery and icons from Maria’s talented hand, also served as a meeting place for intellectual Russian Orthodox. Over the following years, she opened another hostel for the destitute and a sanatorium for the ill while she herself lived in a small, unheated room.

On June 14, 1940, Paris fell to the Nazis. Mother Maria joined some colleagues in preparing and dispatching food parcels and funds to families of more than 1,000 Russian émigrés who were imprisoned by the Nazis. She also hid Jews at Lourmel and forged documents for them. In 1942, 6,900 Jews were rounded up and kept for five days in the Velodrome d’Hiver, Paris’ sports stadium, with only one water faucet and ten latrines. She managed to enter the stadium and, assisted by garbage collectors, smuggled out several Jewish children in garbage bins.

In February 1943 Mother Maria, her son Iura, and Lourmel’s chaplain, Father Klepinin, were arrested. In response to the accusation that Maria was helping “yids,” her mother Sophia told the Gestapo agent: “My daughter is a genuine Christian, and for her there is neither Greek nor Jew, only individuals in distress. If you were threatened by some disaster, she would help you too.”

Klepinin and Iura died in Dora concentration camp. Mother Maria was deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp. There, as prisoner Number 19263, she continued her ministry among her companions, with the strength of her faith giving them encouragement and love in the midst of hopelessness and despair. Finally, Maria, her health broken, could no longer pass the roll call on Good Friday 1945. She stepped into the line with those women condemned to die, hoping to inspire them to meet their fate with faith in God. As one witness wrote, “She offered herself consciously to the holocaust . . . thus assisting each one of us to accept the cross. . . . She radiated the peace of God and communicated it to us.”
icon of Maria
                                Skobtsov at Ravensbruck
con of Maria Skobtsova - martyred at Ravensbruck conc
entration camp

Mother Maria Skobtsova was gassed on Holy Saturday. Ravensbrück’s women prisoners from France were liberated through the auspices of the International Red Cross on Easter Sunday.

Anthony Bloom, Orthodox Metropolitan of Sourozh and Great Britain, noted that Mother Maria is remembered in the context of her times—the Russian Emigration, the French Resistance, and the Nazi concentration camps. However, he added, “her achievement extends beyond the circumstances of her life, and it outlives them. Since her life was completely interwoven with the destiny of her contemporaries, their turmoil was hers, their tragedy was hers. And yet she was not swept away by it. She was anchored in God and her feet rested on the Rock.”

From the writings of Mother Maria

What is most essential, most determining in the image of the cross is the necessity of freely and voluntarily accepting it and taking it up. Christ freely, voluntarily took upon Himself the sins of the world, and raised them up on the cross, and thereby redeemed them and defeated hell and death.  To accept the endeavor and  responsibility voluntarily, to freely crucify your sins - that is the meaning of the cross, when we speak of bearing it on our human paths.  Freedom is the inseparable sister of responsibility.  The cross is this freely accepted responsibility, clear-sighted and sober. 
(Essential Writings, p. 64)

The way to God lies through love of people.  At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made.  Instead I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners.  That is all I shall be asked.  About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says "I:" "I was hungry, and thirsty, I was sick and in prison."  To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need... I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe.

This article is adapted from the book, Even Unto Death: Wisdom from Modern Martyrs, edited by Jeanne Kun, The Word Among Us Press, © 2002. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Jeanne Kun is a noted author and a senior woman leader in the Word of Life Community, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA.

See > other articles by Jeanne Kun

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